By Paul Rozycki
Dale Kildee, who served as Flint’s congressman for 36 years, died Oct. 13 at age 92. He was one of the longest serving members of Congress and was reelected to the U.S. House 18 times, retiring in 2012.
Kildee, who had considered entering the priesthood, earned his B.A. at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit, earned a teaching certificate at the University of Detroit, and did graduate work in political science and history in Peshawar Pakistan on a Rotary Fellowship. He began his career at the University of Detroit Jesuit High School before coming to Flint as a Latin teacher at Flint Central High School. It was at Central High School, where he met, Gayle, his wife of 56 years.
His political career began when he first ran for the Michigan state House in 1964. He won the seat handily and served in the House until 1974, when he was elected to the state Senate, where he served until 1976. When Donald Riegle left his U.S. House seat and won his election to the U.S. Senate, Kildee ran and won in 1976, With few exceptions, Kildee won easily for the next three decades and more, becoming one of the longest serving members of Congress.
He also had a record for missing the fewest votes in Congress during his career. By 2010, in his last full term, Kildee has missed only 28 votes, a 99.9 percent record, one of the strongest in congressional history. By the time he left Congress probably every voter in his district had one of the “Dale Kildee” yardsticks that were a signature part of his campaigns for years.
While serving in the U.S. House Kildee was best known for his support of labor issues, and served on the Education and Workforce Committee. The building on the Mott Community College campus dedicated to workforce development is called the “Dale Kildee and William S. White Building”.
He once said the he felt his ability to direct federal funds to Mott Community College and Kettering University were among his proudest achievements. He also took pride in his role in reforming the Head Start Program and the No Child Left Behind initiative.
He had a strong interest in Native American issues and was a founding member of the Native American Caucus in the House. While in the Michigan House, he sponsored the Michigan Indian Tuition Waiver, which provided a free college education to Native American students.
On a personal level, I was honored to have Dale Kildee speak in my classes on several occasions. His ability to connect with his constituents and their concerns was obvious when he responded to student questions and explained the workings of Congress.
While working on a totally unrelated project, I also discovered a unique hallmark of Kildee’s dedication to education. Some years ago, while researching old year books for a history of Mott College, I came across a Central High School Yearbook with a photo of a very young Dale Kildee, draped in a roman toga, serving as a faculty sponsor of the Central High School Latin Club, as students gathered around the Latin teacher for an end of the year celebration.
At almost every Democratic state convention in the last half century Dale Kildee could be counted on to meet and work with all the delegates from the area. His ties to labor and support of labor causes were clear when he was a major speaker at the annual UAW Labor Day picnics.
His strong support for labor unions and the threat that foreign imports posed for American automakers, led him to oppose the NAFTA free trade agreement in the 1990s. It’s fair to say that every Democratic elected official in Genesee County in almost the last 50 years has relied on Dale Kildee for advice and guidance. More than a few local political leaders learned their skills working for and with Dale Kildee. Politicians of both parties praised him.
State Senator Jim Ananich, (D-Flint) Democratic minority leader, said of Kildee, “Dale Kildee was truly one-of-a-kind. For 18 terms, he brought a certain Flint brand of leadership, humility and humanity to the halls of Congress. He will be remembered as a guardian of our auto industry, a dedicated educator and an advocate for Michigan’s Native American communities.
“Dale was one of my early political heroes who later became a valued mentor and friend. Andrea and I send our love to everyone in the big Kildee family, and we hope they find peace knowing that he brought so much good to our community, state and country.”
Republican Congressman John Moolenaar said “Today, I mourn the loss of former Congressman Dale Kildee. He dedicated his life to public service and he worked hard for our state. He was respected by Republicans and Democrats alike, and he will be well-remembered by those who knew him. My prayers today are with my colleague Dan Kildee and the entire Kildee family as they mourn Dale’s passing and celebrate his life.”
U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, a Republican from Michigan’s 6th District, who is the state’s longest serving member of Congress, said that Kildee “could cross the aisle to get things done and was honest as the day is long.”
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said of Kildee, “He served students in the classroom, his community in the state capitol, and constituents in DC—where he rarely missed a vote in 35 years. A lifelong Michigander, his passion for working people was clear in the work he did every day. He made our state and country a better place.”
In 2012, Dale Kildee chose not to run for another term, and his nephew Dan Kildee won his seat and has been reelected since. After Dale Kildee’s passing Dan Kildee issued a statement for the family saying, “First and foremost, Dale was family. Born into a large Catholic family that cherished our Irish heritage, Dale was an incredible uncle and role model, Later, as I followed in his footsteps into a life of public service, Dale became a political mentor to me …
“(He) was always proud that he was from Flint, the birthplace of the modern labor movement. Throughout his work, Dale was kind, humble and dedicated to his constituents, Dale never forgot who he worked for or the constituents who sent him to Congress. And Dale always brought civility and kindness to the political debate, something that we all could learn from today.”
Kildee is survived by his wife, Gayle and his three children, Paul, Laura and David, and many grandchildren.
Arrangements are pending.
EVM reporter and political commentator Paul Rozycki can be reached at email@example.com.